How to be an adult
Publishing abhors a vacuum. Just as an ascendant generation surges into their twenties, a spate of self-help books rushes to greet them. The subject: “adulting,” or how to be an adult.
“Does it have anything to do with adultery?” journalist Kelly Williams Brown inquires in her book, “Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” For those in doubt, she answers: “It does not.”
Brown and several peers — all women; growing up isn’t really a guy thing — offer practical advice on navigating the minefields of bourgeois living. Brown’s tips include: “Master bathroom cleaning,” “Put produce in the crisper drawer,” and “Get in the zone while grocery shopping.” She recommends that you steel yourself for the Stop & Shop by playing music like Kanye West’s “Stronger.” When I go to the supermarket, I get in the Doritos Cool Ranch zone, which is probably why I’m not dispensing life-hacking advice to young people.
Alida Nugent, author of “Don’t Worry, It Gets Worse: One Twentysomething’s (Mostly Failed) Attempts at Adulthood” opines that “parents have gotten too soft, too sensitive, too unwilling to let their kids know they just might fail.” Her parents, maybe. My wife and I, not so much. We pretty much ran a “Return with your shield, or on it” household. And it worked. One of our sons is now a lochagos commanding 144 hoplites in the Spartan army.
No, not really.
What about Nugent’s core premise? Does life get worse after you turn 21? I seem to recall it getting worse (the haunting anomie of single adulthood), then temporarily better (marriage, or its functional equivalent), then worse again (diapers, et. seq.), then really fun. And, well, the sine curve of adult life flows on from there.
I can’t think of anyone my age (well under 60, he emphasizes) who wouldn’t want to be young again, mainly to repeat the mistakes we made the first time around. That was fun! I wouldn’t say life gets worse, it just threatens to get less interesting, if you let it.
The mantle of adulthood descended on me in the early 1990s, when a member of my third-grade soccer team addressed me as “Mr. Beam.” I looked over my shoulder; my father wasn’t there. I guess he meant me.
I’m trying to recall any set of core values that I tried to pass on to my sons, other than the above-mentioned martial spirit. Their mother chaired the Department of Moral Guidance, as I recall. And so much the better. I’m old enough to remember the phrase “situational ethics,” which meant, “Do whatever you feel like; we’ll rationalize that behavior later.” A concept best left entombed in the 1960s, whence it came.
I did emphasize oral hygiene, and regular flossing. (Use Reach, not Glide; there’s some worthwhile advice.) Yes, I explained to my sons, George Washington was the father of this country, but he ended up with only one tooth. Don’t let that happen to you.
If I had to preach adulthood all over again, I would emphasize good posture and speaking slowly. I should know; I slouch, and I talk too fast.
The world thinks that people who speak slowly have something to say. Corporate executives know this trick. They’re not the sharpest knives in the drawer, but when they talk on TV, the statesmanlike bromides spring from their lips in measured, Lincolnesque cadence. “Brian . . . I can assure you that . . . Apple pays . . . its fair share of taxes.” Or “Scott . . . the physical well-being of our workers . . . in Bangladesh is . . . one of our highest priorities.” That kind of thing.
Of course everyone wants the recipe for the secret sauce: How can I be a grown-up without making a hash of it? Adulting chronicler Iris Smyles, author of the novel “Iris Has Free Time,” told The Wall Street Journal that a relative once asked her father for the secret of his success. “There is no secret, just hard work,” he answered. “But most people don’t want to hear that. They want to believe there’s some kind of trick to life.”
Her father is right. There are few tricks, alas. Floss. Speak slowly. Stand up straight. Come back with your shield — oh, never mind.
Alex Beam’s column will appear regularly in the Globe this summer.